On a quota system begging reform
M. Serajul Islam
Certain things are possible only in Bangladesh like the quota system in our civil bureaucracy that came to public knowledge only after affected young men and women – our projonmo- came together at Shahabag and flagged an abused system for the government and the nation. Unlike the projonmo who had gathered at Shahabag over Qader Mollah that was welcomed and indulged by the government, this projonmo was forced out of Shahabag by the police. The “Shahabag Merit Chattar” nevertheless succeeded in shocking the nation by exposing that the government follows a recruitment policy for the civil bureaucracy where 56% is recruited on quota basis and 44% on merit! Had the Public Service Commission (PSC) not applied this quota allocation in the preliminary examination of 100 marks for the first time in the 34th BCS Examination, the irrationality in the existing quota system in our civil bureaucracy would have remained outside the attention of the nation.
The irrationality of the quota system may be better understood with a little explanation. In the existing quota system for recruitment through the Bangladesh Civil Service (BCS) examinations, a walloping 30% of available posts are reserved for sons/daughters of freedom fighters, 10% for women and 14% for districts/tribal, etc leaving 44% for the general candidates. Unfortunately, the general candidates constitute the overwhelming majority of those who take the BCS examinations. Thus, the vast majority of the candidates face extremely intense competition because they have lesser number of posts to fight for while those who have the benefit of the quota have very little competition because their numbers are far less but they have more posts reserved for them. The quota candidates can also avail posts from the 44% open for the overwhelming majority of the candidates.
If we look a little deeper into this unbelievable quota system, the anger and frustration of those who expressed it at Shahabag will be explicit. Take for instance the 30% is reserved for the sons/daughters of the freedom fighters. This benefit goes to the small number of individuals who parents were certified as freedom fighters. There is genuine concern in the minds of many people that the benefit of the liberation war in which the people of Bangladesh participated as a nation and not as members of a political party went to only a few who were connected with the Awami League or supporters of the party. In fact, after the AL came to power in 1996-2001, Sheikh Hasina had termed, albeit sarcastically, the certified freedom fighters recruited in government service in 1973 as “Tofael Bahini” that underscored that they were overwhelmingly the supporters of the Awami League.
If candidates taking a civil service examination 40 plus years after that liberation war was fought and won, find that 30% of the jobs in a BCS examination are not theirs to compete and reserved for the small number of sons and daughters of the certified freedom fighters, then their frustration and anger can only draw the support and sympathy of the nation. The 10% quota for women has better explanation to be a part of the quota system on numbers alone as women constitute half the population. In a country like Bangladesh, the women quota makes sense also because women are generally considered to be disadvantaged. Nevertheless, as far the women who take the BCS examination are concerned; they come from more or less the same socio-economic background as their male competitors. Very few of the women who take the BCS examination come from disadvantaged background as women in the national context. As for the remaining 14% under district quota/tribal people, there may have been some reason to introduce the district element at the beginning. But today, candidates can so easily change their district to take advantage of the district quota that it should be withdrawn because of the extent to which it has been abused. Of the entire quota system, only the negligible percentage reserved for tribal people really makes sense.
The jobs on offer through the BCS are those that eventually make those who get it, Secretaries to the Government, Ambassadors, etc, jobs that bring the highest respect in society. The foundation of the country’s civil bureaucracy, an institution upon which the country’s development and its future depends, rests on those who hold these jobs because they are the leaders of the civil bureaucracy. Such an institution should be based for the country’s sake, by simple logic and reason, on merit alone or to the largest extent possible. To have reduced the merit context of such an important institution in nation building to such a minor component does not make any sense at all. It has happened because over the years, successive governments, instead of dealing with the absurd expansion of the quota system , indulged with it and helped add more to it ultimate pushing it to its present status where merit has been made secondary to quota. Successive governments have used the quota system for reasons of politics as for instance the decision to provide quota benefit to sons and daughters of freedom fighters.
These deficiencies in the quota system would have remained un-notice by the nation had the PSC not gone ahead and applied this quota system on the 100 marks preliminary examination for the 34th BCS examination. By the application, only little over 12,000 candidates qualified and over 2 lacs failed. Those who failed were almost all outside the lucky “quota candidates”. Like pouring salt to the injury, thousands of candidates who failed had substantially more marks than many thousands who passed. The logical consequence of the PSC’s absurd decision was the outpouring of anger by the thousands of frustrated candidates who chose the Shahabag Chattar to vent their frustrations. Their gathering drew national attention and sympathy but not the government’s. After a day or two of indulgence, the police, using the excuse of violence by the Shahbag Merit Chattar, dispersed them by force. Hundreds of these protesters have now cases in court filed against them after the agitation was given a political twist by the government.
Nevertheless, the Shahabag merit protesters did not fail to highlight for the government and the nation the injustice and anomalies in the quota system that has gone off the rails. The present government also saw the political fallout for here is a different “projonmo” whose cause has drawn national attention and support. The Shahbag merit youth were also able to highlight that merit and majority interest are both being sacrificed to give advantages to a few. What the Shahabag merit chattar did not explain to the nation is that the quality of candidates recruited under the quota system is poor and is responsible for sliding quality of the civil bureaucracy of Bangladesh.
At the time of filing this article, the PSC has reviewed the preliminary examination of the 34th BCS examination. It withdrew the quota system and over 46,000 candidates were declared to have passed. Nevertheless, for the future of the country, the government must now examine the validity of the quota in the civil bureaucracy for the youth that had gathered in Shahabag have unequivocally flagged for the government and the nation the urgent need for it. The system has been allowed to spread unchecked for too long and has affected the civil bureaucracy adversely. The demand has resonated in all public universities and without reform, anger and frustration among the youth over the quota system will get stronger. Nevertheless it cannot be abolished immediately. However, the government must start reviewing the quota system without delay by giving more percentage to merit but at the same time set a time frame for ending it altogether.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador.